NASA's record-shattering astronaut Peggy Whitson will return to Earth next month after a momentous extended visit to the International Space Station (ISS). Whitson connected with Space.com from the orbiting laboratory on Aug. 9 to discuss the highlights of her mission — including the solar eclipse of Aug. 21 — and what her life will be like back on Earth.
Since Whitson launched to the ISS in November 2016, she has set a multitude of spaceflight records, including several for women in space. On day one, she became the oldest woman to go to space at the age of 56. During a spacewalk in March, she set a new record for the most spacewalking time accumulated by a female astronaut. One month later, she broke the record for cumulative time in space by a NASA astronaut, as well as the longest single spaceflight by a woman.
By the time Whitson heads home on Sept. 2, she'll have spent 289 consecutive days in space and a total of 665 days throughout the course of her 21-year career as an astronaut. She was originally supposed to spend just six months at the ISS, but NASA decided to keep her in space for an extra three months, which put her on track to continue her record-breaking streak. [In Photos: Record-Breaking NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson]
Before Whitson departs the space station, she and her crewmates will have the opportunity to watch a total solar eclipse sweep across North America on Aug. 21. "We have plans to take pictures and watch during the eclipse," Whitson told Space.com, adding that the space station crew will have three opportunities to view the eclipse. "Our orbits won't be terribly close — I think they said around 1,700 miles — but we're still hoping to be able to see it on three different orbits around the Earth, so it will be interesting [and] fun — my first time to see an eclipse from up here."
Throughout her current mission to the ISS, Whitson has also helped to conduct several science investigations. As someone with a background in biochemistry, Whitson said that her favorite experiments involved looking at cell cultures of cancerous lung cells, testing new drug treatments and studying bone cells in microgravity.
Many of those experiments will continue both in space and on Earth after Whitson returns from the ISS. "We do a lot of the baseline data collections — the final data collections for all the experiments that have been running since before we launched," Whitson explained. "There are many investigations on the human body that we've been doing up here in orbit, and we'll have to continue those studies as well."
While Whitson said she has no plans to return to space, her work with the International Space Station is far from over. She and her crewmates will spend the first 45 days after returning to Earth undergoing physical rehabilitation to get reacquainted with gravity. After that, Whitson said that she'll continue to work with the ISS program, "doing a lot of debriefs talking to the ground teams about procedures that worked really well, procedures that we need to try and improve on, tools or hardware, things that we had issues with — just ideas of how to operationally improve the efficiencies up here so that we can get even more done."
Clearly, astronauts are superbusy people, even after their mission ends. But that doesn't mean they don't get to have a little vacation time, too. Whitson said she expects to take about four weeks off between now and Christmas (Dec. 25), followed by a boat trip with friends and family in February. After going almost 300 days without a single vacation, who can blame her?